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West County High School junior Dylan Emily has never liked to write. He says he’s never really been an attentive student, and he’s often struggled with attendance.

That all changed when he made one important decision - to join JAG.

JAG, or Jobs for America’s Graduates, is a state-based national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing students from dropping out of high school. JAG helps students stay in school through graduation and transition into college or careers. JAG-Missouri, Inc. is part of the national JAG network and includes 33 state organizations and many program affiliates.

JAG has been a part of West County’s curriculum for four years.

When Emily joined JAG at school, his priorities shifted. Two of his co-teachers, JAG specialists Neila Crane and Kent Lashley, encouraged him to do better. As a result, he has only missed one day of school this year. He is more focused, and now he enjoys writing.

It started when Crane required all of the JAG students to enter a JAG Missouri essay contest. Last year Missouri Gov. Mike Parson was a member of the JAG board. Gov. Parson’s wife, Teresa, has been a strong advocate for JAG. So the pair sponsored a “Light Up My World” essay contest for high school JAG students after the governor’s wife said she wanted to bring Missouri students to the mansion.

Crane and Lashley received 22 essays, and they narrowed it down to the top four. Emily’s essay was chosen as the first-place winner after careful consideration. When Crane announced to the JAG classes that Emily’s essay had earned first place, he was in shock.

“I had never been the type of student to be good at writing,” says Emily. “I wrote the essay just to share my feelings about how JAG has influenced me, and I never expected to win.”

Emily had written a 1,000-1,500-word essay on the topic “What are the characteristics of a good citizen and how do you think JAG will help you develop those traits?” His essay, which had to include references, was judged on its purpose and focus; organization and development; structure and language; mechanics; and overall effectiveness.

He says although it only took three days to write, Emily felt good about his essay but “didn’t think it was winning worthy.”

Crane says Emily’s essay stood out because it was “personal and authentic.”

“It followed exactly what I thought she [Mrs. Parsons] was looking for in future careers,” says Crane. “His essay definitely makes JAG shine because even early on, Dylan could tell that JAG was making a big difference in his life.”

Emily says Crane and Lashley make a big difference in all the JAG students’ lives. One thing they do is called “bucket discussion,” where the students ask questions anonymously. Some are about careers, relationships, school, etc. This has been a very positive aspect of class.

“There’s something special about seeing your students grow and change and make a difference,” says Crane.

Crane says she’s proud of Emily’s accomplishments for winning the contest.

Emily says he’s proud of himself for doing his best on something that has led to something that was “way more fun than I ever expected.”

That fun was a recent full-day VIP trip and tour of the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City. Emily, his parents and Crane traveled to the state’s capital on a charter bus to join the state’s 18 total winners, their parents and JAG specialists. Once the winners arrived at the capital, security allowed the them through the gates at the mansion and divided them into three groups.

“It was very personal,” says Emily, “and they made us feel like VIPs at the governor’s mansion.”

Gov. Parson gave a speech from the elegant staircase, saying that he was proud overall of all the students and that he only sponsors JAG because he feels that it is very important. After his speech, he took a photograph with all the winners. Then he and wife Teresa mingled with everyone and gave them a chance to get individual photos with him.

Emily says he was “kind of choked up” when he first met the governor, but then Gov. Parson started talking to him and even complimented him on how nicely dressed he was. Emily says he immediately calmed down because the Parsons were “very genuine people.”

The students and their guests enjoyed a private tour of the mansion, including the governor’s living quarters. The first floor—with many different paintings of former first ladies of Missouri--is typically the only floor where visitors are allowed, so venturing beyond these normal perimeters made the tour very special for the students. The groups saw beautiful chandeliers, vintage furniture, elaborately decorated bedrooms with massive double-door entries, and went out on the governor’s private balcony. They viewed interesting memorabilia sent to the governor from people around the U.S. The third floor, with five bedrooms and a pool table, is where the grandchildren generally stay. A massive kitchen is located in the basement. Past governors have had trampolines and other fun entertainment on this floor. The mansion previously had 14 bedrooms overall, but some of those rooms have been turned into bathrooms and other things. The mansion was also lavishly decorated for the holidays, including a massive real Christmas tree.

After the tour, the winners and their guests were treated to a special dinner about a block away in Madison’s Café’s banquet room. Their dinner included Fettuccini Alfredo, Swedish meatballs, ravioli, salad, and more.

The group returned to the mansion after eating. This time, though, they entered through the back because a huge crowd had gathered in front of the mansion. The governor’s grandson and his high school band were playing music. After a short speech from Gov. Parson, the crowd did a countdown and the governor and his wife — surrounded by the JAG essay winners and their guests—lit up the outdoor Christmas tree.

Emily says the experience has been exciting and so worthwhile.

“I have also gotten a lot more confident and I actually enjoy writing now,” he says. After graduation, Emily plans to become a Navy corpsman to help provide healthcare to others.

“It was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity meeting Gov. Parsons and his wife,” says Emily, “and it was all because I wrote an essay. I’d definitely do it again.”

Other students who earned recognition at WCHS for their JAG essays included Dakota Williams, second place; Erika Meinershagen, third place; and Angel Stokes, fourth place.

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